Sunday 2 October 2022 Jubilee 2 Wonderful, Innovative and Skilful Hymn Writers
Psalm 96: 1-6
O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Honour and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
I was once at a dinner party with some gorgeous people, who were also very traditional Anglicans. On hearing that I was a member of the United Reformed Church, one, actually rather famous member of the company, asked, ‘Oh, do you have hymns in your church?’ I think I mentioned Isaac Watts… And I reflected, in calmer mode, that perhaps we are sometimes as guilty as others of ignorance of our own tradition, or lack of appreciation for it.
We stand, in the URC, in a wonderful tradition of innovative hymn writing and it’s no accident that we have had, and still have among us, some of the finest of modern hymn writers. The Reformers took us back to singing the Psalms (and some of those Genevan Psalm settings have a simplicity of form that is deeply moving – when I sing them in the cathedral in Geneva the tears come). Then others, in our own land, found they wanted words to sing in praise of God that included the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Isaac Watts wrote countless hymns, but if he had only written ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ he would be worthy of our thanks. Those words, as full of complexity and allusion as a Jane Austen novel, are skillful and beautiful enough to take any singer’s breath away. In later times Fred Kaan, after a world war, wrote hymns for a modern era when faith was challenged to find new words. In the best of our worship we know how to sing hymns that don’t merely punctuate the liturgy, but are part of it. We have among us those who give the time to the preparation of worship that is timely, beautiful, well crafted, rooted in the traditions of faith and speaking into the present moment. Let us thank God for this gift that we hold, let’s nurture it faithfully for the Church of the future, and let no-one keep us from singing.
Thank you God for the gift of song, for the wonder of hymns crafted in beauty and strength, set to music that lifts words, and that touches our spirits. Give us voices with which to sing, men and women with skill in composition, and the fellowship of the heavenly choir, to sing your eternal praise, Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Susan Durber is the Moderator of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.